06 July 2016
The question of what makes great theatre acting can attain a near-theological complexity. The most workable definition for me is that the stage greats give an account of their characters that is physically and psychologically convincing and compelling, finding moments that another actor – or even the writer – would not have noticed. This lightning struck twice last week.
Helen McCrory portrays (in succession to Peggy Ashcroft, Penelope Wilton, Rachel Weisz and others) Hester Collyer, the judge’s wife in love with a drunken RAF veteran, in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.
Rattigan restricted the action to the small west London rented flat, where, at curtain rise, Hester is trying to gas herself after understanding that Freddie, the RAF fighter pilot who can find no peace in post-war England, will never match the intensity of her passion for him. Unusually, though, Tom Scutt’s monumental set for Carrie Cracknell’s National Theatre revival shows us the whole house, the other residents visible through gauze screens in their own flats or on the stairs.
The effect of this wide-shot design is to emphasise how Hester lives among a diaspora of the damaged: the unfulfilled landlady Mrs Elton, the betrayed pregnant wife Ann Welch, and Miller, a defrocked doctor who provides unofficial medical services while working as a bookie’s runner.
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